The False Choice Between Mobility and Community Development

What is it about community development that it constantly seems to be posited in a binary set of choices that aren’t really and don’t have to be choices, and that […]

What is it about community development that it constantly seems to be posited in a binary set of choices that aren’t really and don’t have to be choices, and that don’t even have to be oppositional? Community development vs. organizing. Neighborhood-based community development vs. regionalism.

I don’t think any of these are real choices, and I’ve written elsewhere about how community development and organizing (here, here, here, here), and neighborhoods vs. regions (here) are not things we should be choosing between, and that we should actually be committing to them as complimentary sets of strategies.

As Philip Tegeler has blogged, community development vs. mobility is another such false choice–another false opposition where the approaches should be more integrated and supportive of each other. But to bust out of this false, forced choice trap, we need a deeper commitment to social and economic justice movement building.

At some levels, it’s easy to see where the tension comes from. Tight quarters and shrinking resources pit similarly situated people against each other. HUD is a major public funder for the implementation of both mobility strategies (via vouchers) and of community development (via programs like HOME and CDBG).

In our age of austerity and fiscal cliffs, HUD’s overall budget has been cut and then cut some more. Flowing from these cuts, all of HUD’s major programs have been squeezed and then squeezed some more. As housing advocates we try to put up a unified front, but it is hard, within the limited confines of the HUD budget, not to think about reasons why your pet program is less deserving of being cut than other people’s pet programs.

In the CBO/social sector advocacy world, we’re supposed to be about serving the people, the greater good, collaboration, and other nicey-nice stuff. But when the going gets tough, we have a Donner Party mentality. Resources dwindle and then we bust out the knives and forks and start eyeing our neighbors hungrily.

In these times, it’s good to remember and to re-articulate shared visions, shared values, and shared histories. The mobility/anti-segregation and community development movements were fired from the same kiln; both have strong lineage in the bad old days of more explicit and more openly policed racial segregation (racism and racial segregation are still alive, of course, but have learned to hide better). Both drew power and relevance from the Civil Rights Movement, from urban unrest, and from movements to fight poverty and racism.

We all believe that people should have meaningful opportunity to pursue a variety of life options, that low income shouldn’t mean low quality of life, that your race and the place where you were born shouldn’t, in and of themselves, diminish your life opportunities or your life expectancy.

We should also remember that one size does not fit all and that there are different strokes for different folks. Some people may choose to move. Some people may choose to stay and fight. Each of us, in the course and context of our own lives, will make different choices and may even change our minds about our choices. That’s all okay. In the immortal words of the Gambler, “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”

We need to legitimize a broader range of the choices individuals and families may make and give people real options. For instance, we need to make sure that staying in a segregated, unsafe, unhealthy, and dysfunctional neighborhood is not a forced choice because people don’t have the resources to move elsewhere, AND that our social/economic policies don’t mean that low-income people and people of color are disproportionately displaced/forced out of beloved homes or neighborhoods because of gentrification, urban renewal, etc. We need to make sure that there are neighborhoods of hope and opportunity everywhere and that there are multiple ways to arrive (or stay) where people want to be. And we need to make sure that these different pathways are robust, that the infrastructure to support both mobility and community development is fully resourced.

In these times, it is important to remind ourselves that we do not live within the confines of economic game theory. There are more choices in front of us than whether to starve to death or throw one of our friends off of the lifeboat. For those of us who feel like the prisoners of the current dilemma, we must remember that we can do more than choose between keeping our mouths shut or turning on each other.

Here again, it is instructive to go back to the shared crucible of the Civil Rights Movement, the Feminist Movement, and the Anti-War Movement. Civil rights legislation, the War on Poverty, etc. were all possible because there were broad social movements demanding change.

This is the real blueprint for breaking the gridlock of false choices, for freeing ourselves from the confines of self-imposed austerity. For whatever reasons, the generalized “we” have moved away from social movement building and more toward implementation of social programs. We’ve moved away from broad, collective action and more toward logic models, outcomes, impacts, evaluation… Not to create more sets of false dialectics here—we need both movement and programs, we need both passion and efficiency—but we’ve been a little thin on the movement and the passion as of late.

Revived, multi-dimensional movement building is the way I see forward—it’s how we can change the game. We need to bust out of the limited space that makes us fight for crumbs within the HUD budget. We need to talk about raising taxes, about the ongoing costs of the wars, and about the real choices and the real priority-setting we need to make around economic and social justice.

Related Articles

  • A pyramid-shaped building, mostly white but blue at the top. In front of it is a tall sign that reads "Memphis" in capital letters, with a guitar standing in for the letter I. In front of that is a trestle of brownish metal, and crossing the view diagonally are five parallel power lines.

    What Do Residents Think of Community Development Organizations?

    May 7, 2024

    Research explores residents' experiences with and observations about community development organizations in four cities.

  • A Catalyst for Change in Oakland: Annette Miller

    March 20, 2024

    Community organizer Annette Miller has turned personal tragedy into a force for good. This video is part of Shelterforce’s Women of Color on the Front Lines series.

  • A sign on a brick wall advising drivers of a steep hill. The sign is all-caps black lettering on a white background.

    How ‘Tenant Stewards’ Are Using TOPA to Form a Co-op

    January 26, 2024

    Organized by a pandemic-era mutual aid group, this housing cooperative is taking advantage of D.C.’s pioneering Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. But the pressure of paying back a loan with mounting interest could stymie the group's plans to provide affordable housing.